The book Levels of Life uses ideas of ballooning and photography to take the reader on journeys from love to loss: the first sparks of romance to the certainty of marriage, reaching for the stars and tumbling down to earth. The way in which Julian Barnes achieves this is magnificent, subtle and inspiring. He approaches the topic just as the grief, loss and love are themselves: elusive, ethereal and changeable.
Suitably, the form of the book defies categorization. Set up in three parts, each sensitively guides us towards the depth of intertwining emotions of loss. Each part grows closer and closer to Barnes’ own lived experience of grief. Whilst each part has its own distinct tone, the re-occurring metaphors of ballooning and photography create an indelible connection between every stage.
The first part is hopeful, light and almost surreal. Based largely on anecdotes of the first experiments into ballooning and photography, this section ostensibly relates to the excitement, wonder and expectation of a budding love. This is followed by an increasingly somber chapter, examining what happens in times of trouble when the elation of the first successes has worn off. Yet rooted underneath is the pride of perseverance and the certainty in the subject: whether this is another person, the ballooning experience or the science of photography does not matter.
The novel builds up to arrive at the final stage of love: grief, a feeling Barnes shows profound insight into. Whilst he is able to powerfully explain the way loss, specifically that of his wife to cancer in 2008, hit him personally, he does not claim to understand grief. He realizes that it is not homogenous, but a unique, highly personal experience.
By laying himself bare, sharing his raw grief with the readers without any pretensions to understanding that of others, Barnes gives comfort and consolation in the most sensitive way. The novel takes us on a ballooning trip, lets us join him on a journey into the past. We are there during the rush of lift off; we marvel at the view from the top; it dawns on us that we must return to the ground; and lastly, together, we glide back into reality.